Director-General's Office

Rotary Convention

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
Director-General of the World Health Organization

Toronto, Canada
25 June 2018

Mr Ian Riseley, President of Rotary International,

My fellow Rotarians,

I am twice a Paul Harris fellow, and I have worked with Rotarians in Ethiopia, that’s where my experience starts. The passion and dedication and commitment you show always inspires me. So thank you so much for inspiring me, I’m very honoured to be with you.

One of my first speaking commitments as Director-General of WHO was at the Rotary Convention in Atlanta last year, and I’m delighted to be back.

Rotary is a vital partner for WHO. And our partnership has brought us to the threshold of a historic achievement – the eradication of polio.

Since Rotary launched its PolioPlus program in 1985, we have reduced polio cases by 99.9%. This is because of your perseverance, your commitment.

30 years ago, there were more than 350,000 cases of wild poliovirus every year in more than 125 endemic countries.

Last year - only 22 cases, in just two countries.

Thanks to you, more than 17 million cases of polio have been averted.

Thanks to you, 1.5 million childhood deaths have been prevented.

Thanks to you, a global network of more than 20 million volunteers has been mobilized – quite a force.

This in itself is a major achievement worth celebrating.

But we cannot be satisfied. We cannot be complacent. We must finish the job. We must wipe polio from the face of the earth.

Together, we will make polio history.

Of course, the last mile is the hardest. In the coming year, we must work to establish Nigeria as polio free, prevent outbreaks, and end wild poliovirus in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I have been to both Pakistan and Nigeria.

We must also continue surveillance efforts everywhere, especially in hard-to-reach or conflict-affected areas, so we can be sure that the virus does not hide anywhere.

Every year, we continue to vaccinate more than 400 million children in areas at highest risk, to ensure those areas remain polio-free.

But to reach our goal of eradication, we must vaccinate all remaining children. 99.9% is simply not enough.

If we do not reach every single child, poliovirus could continue to hide and circulate among pockets of difficult-to-reach unvaccinated children.

Outbreaks in Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the past year have shown the risks of under-immunization.

Just last week I was in Greece to open WHO’s country office in Athens. I had the opportunity to meet Mohammed, an asylum seeker from Syria.

Mohammed had polio earlier in his life and is now confined to a wheelchair.

It was a vivid reminder to me of the terrible consequences of polio, and the and the potential consequences if we do not wipe it out.

If we fail to finish the job, we estimate that in ten years we could once again be dealing with more than 200,000 children paralyzed by polio every year - even in a high-income country like Canada.

The good news is that eradication strategies always succeed when they are fully implemented everywhere. And with the tremendous support of Rotary, we are on track.

With each vaccination, we are one step nearer to making history.

Success relies on determination from everyone, from politicians to ordinary people. We must ensure that national emergency plans in the remaining affected countries are fully implemented, and we must ensure that the international community continues to provide the necessary funding to succeed.

If we fail to wipe out polio simply because we couldn’t find the money, it will be a global shame.

That is why this event is so important. We must make sure the world does not forget polio, because the virus has not forgotten us.

We need to show close we are to full eradication, and how urgently we need to complete the job. With the help of extraordinary people like you, I know we can do it.

So now we must start planning for success, to ensure that once polio is eradicated, it stays eradicated.

This has two dimensions:

First, we must maintain the infrastructure needed to sustain a polio-free world – the capacity to respond to outbreaks, to continue surveillance and to continue vaccination.

And second, we must ensure that the huge investments we have made in polio continue to have an impact long after polio is gone.

The “Plus” in PolioPlus has always meant that polio eradication is about more than getting rid of a single disease. The infrastructure built up to eradicate polio can and must be used to meet other public health goals, including responding to outbreaks of other diseases.

Our investments in polio eradication must become part of something even bigger and more challenging, but even more transformative: the push towards universal health coverage.

This is our top priority at WHO. We see a world in which all people can access the health services they need, without facing financial hardship.

Because we have not truly helped a child if we vaccinate him against polio, but not against measles.

We have not truly helped a child if we protect her from polio, but not from early marriage.

We have not truly helped a community if we free it from polio, but not from tobacco products.

Today, more than half the world’s population lacks access to essential health services like routine vaccination, cancer screening, and the opportunity to see a health worker.

And every year, 100 million people are pushed into extreme poverty by the costs of paying for care out of their own pockets.

This is one of the greatest injustices of our time.

WHO is committed to ensuring that by 2023, 1 billion more people globally will live in countries with universal health coverage.

The basis of universal health coverage is strong health systems, based on people-centred primary care.

The legacy of polio eradication must therefore be that generations of children continue to benefit from the investments we have made, long after their parents stop talking about polio.

We all have a role to play in this.

Distinguished Rotarians, fellow Rotarians.

Every morning when I arrive at work I pass a bronze statue that depicts a child being vaccinated against smallpox.

In the 20th century alone, smallpox killed more than 500 million people.

But since 1977, there has not been a single case of smallpox.

Smallpox remains the only human disease to be eradicated.

But it will not be the last.

I like statues. I want to add to our collection.

I look forward to the day when together we can unveil a statue that commemorates the end of polio.

I look forward to giving no more speeches about polio.

I look forward to shutting down the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, because its work is done.

But it’s not a foregone conclusion, you know. There is still work to do.

History will record either that we were the generation that eradicated polio, or that we failed to do it when we had the chance.

As I speak, Rotarians around the world are leading the way. You’re leading the way. PolioPlus has become the largest internationally-coordinated public health initiative in history.

Together with our other partners of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative – the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – we stand ready to support you in your final efforts.

I leave you with three messages today.

The first is a simple and whole-hearted thank you. Thirty years is not easy. I actually thought until this morning that it started in 1985. I was told that Rotarians actually started it in 1979. Sustaining a fight like this is really incredible. Thank you for your commitment, and for your service.

Everything you have done has brought us to the brink of a polio-free world, and to the brink of making history.

Secondly, I call on you to redouble your efforts for this last push. We cannot succeed without you.

Raise your voices. Hold governments accountable. Encourage them to honour the commitments they have made.

Thank you for your commitment.

History shows that polio has afflicted humans for centuries.

Now is the time to make polio history.

And finally, as we look to a post-polio world, I call on you to devote your energy and your resources to an even greater public health need: universal health coverage.

This is the great challenge of our time – the challenge of realising the dream of health for all.

The foundation of universal health coverage is strong health systems, based on people-centred primary health care, with a focus on health promotion and disease prevention.

You know this, because day in, day out you work with locals, with communities.

Instead of health systems that focus on treating the sick, we need health systems that protect the healthy – that keep people out of hospitals and in their communities.

Primary care is the best way to do that, by ensuring people can access health services that keep them healthy, close to their homes.

Later this year, we will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Alma Ata declaration in Kazakhstan, Astana, which called for a global movement towards primary care.

This year, we will recommit ourselves to fulfilling that vision, using new technologies and new political commitment, neither of which we had in 1978.

I urge you to join us.